Earth Day's 40th Anniversary

Apr 2, 2010

Celebration Hatched by Former US Senator

WASHINGTON D.C. — In 1993 American Heritage magazine called Earth Day "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy." Twenty million people participated. And as we approach this anniversary (Thursday, April 22), we thought you might want to find out exactly how Earth Day was born.

The person who hatched the idea was Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. At the time, he was a U.S. Senator. Here’s his account, from a 1998 speech:

It had been troubling to me that the critical matter of the state of our environment was simply a non-issue politically The challenge was to think up some dramatic event that would focus national attention on this subject.

In 1962, I suggested that President Kennedy go on a nationwide conservation tour, spelling out in dramatic language the deteriorating condition of our environment, and proposing an agenda to begin addressing the problem. The president began his tour in the fall of 1963. Senators Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Joe Clark, and I accompanied him on the first leg of the trip. For many reasons, including a breaking story on a nuclear missile treaty, the tour failed to make the environment a national political issue.

Six years would pass before the idea for Earth Day occurred to me. It was the summer of 1969, and I was on a conservation speaking tour out West. [One stop was in Santa Barbara, where Nelson was stunned by the damage done by the offshore blowout that became the largest oil spill up to that time. It lasted 11 days and blackened beaches.]

There was a great deal of turmoil on the college campuses over the Vietnam War, and many colleges held anti-war teach-ins. On a flight to the University of California-Berkeley, I read an article on the teach-ins, and it suddenly occurred to me: Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment? In a speech given at Seattle in September, I formally announced that there would be a national environmental teach-in sometime in the spring of 1970. The story ran nationwide. Telegrams, letters, and telephone inquiries poured in.

Soon Nelson needed to open an office to serve as a clearinghouse for the growing number of people who wanted to participate in the teach-in. He hired Denis Hayes, then a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School, to help coordinate the many volunteer organizers who did the hard work of making Earth Day happen.

The Wilderness Society takes a special interest in Earth Day because when Nelson left the Senate in 1981, he joined our staff. He was our counselor for a quarter century, until his death in July 2005.

Three people with close links to Nelson are available to discuss Nelson, the first Earth Day, his legacy, and current environmental challenges:

  • William H. Meadows is president of The Wilderness Society. Meadows worked closely with Nelson for many years and can be contacted at 202-429-2607 or email.
  • Tia Nelson, Gaylord Nelson's daughter, carries on the family “business” of environmentalism as executive secretary of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. She can be contacted at 608-266-8369 or email.
  • Bill Christofferson is the author of The Man From Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson, a political biography published by the University of Wisconsin Press. He can be reached at 414-486-9651 or email.

The best source of historical information on Earth Day is a Web site created recently by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin: It features a number of Earth Day documents, videos, and other items drawn from the Gaylord Nelson collection at the Wisconsin Historical Society, which cosponsored the site. You may also want to contact Penn State Professor Adam Rome, who is completing a book on the history of Earth Day.

On Sunday, April 25th, Earth Day Network and partner organizations will host a massive climate rally on the National Mall to call on Congress to enact climate and clean energy legislation this year.

Fore more information on events around the country, consult Earth Day Network’s calendar.

Find more information about The Wilderness Society’s involvement in Earth Day.